Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kicking Off Ferrum Football

In 1955, Ferrum got its first football coach. For two years,
Sam Webb gave his all to grow the fledgling program

Sam Webb was too small to play high school football, but by May 1955, when the Rev. Ralph Arthur, Ferrum president, invited him to discuss a coaching job at what was then Ferrum Junior College, he had signed or been offered a pro contract in all three major sports and had had a successful coaching stint in the high school ranks. As a result of that meeting, Webb became the College’s first football coach, and during his two-year stay, forged an enduring place for football at Ferrum.

Webb’s love of sports spans back to his days as a student at Wade Junior High School in Bluefield, W.Va., where he first played football. "In those days, you skipped grades, and I went from first grade to third, and from fourth grade to sixth," said Webb. When he entered the 10th grade at Beaver High School, also in Bluefield, he was 14. He played JV basketball his first year, at 5'10" and 115 lbs. When he graduated, he was 6'2" and weighed 165 lbs. Although he played football in junior high, he felt he was too small to play in high school, where boys could play to age 19.

After graduation, Webb attended Moorehead (Ky.) State Teachers College on a basketball scholarship in 1943-44. In August of 1944 however, he was drafted into the Navy. Initially stationed in Sampson, N.Y., near Buffalo, he decided to try out for the base football team, coached by Cdr. Jim Crowley—one of the Four Horsemen under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. They had a successful team and played many big games, mostly against other military institutions.

Webb was transferred to Camp Shelton in Norfolk, which was located next to Little Creek Amphibious Base. “It looked like I would be shipped off to fight Japan,” he said, "but as luck would have it, I was approached by an acquaintance, Louis Bell about playing basketball on the Camp Shelton team. I tried out, made the team, and led the team in scoring with 13.5 points per game." During this assignment, he also played baseball, enjoying much success at the bat and as a defensive first baseman. Webb’s athletic prowess kept him stateside until being discharged in July of 1946.Webb (#8) with the Camp Shelton Basketball Team
(Photo Courtsey Sam Webb)

After the service, Webb had offers from many colleges to play sports. He enrolled at West Virginia University, and was going to play basketball, but they had two All-Americans on the team, Leyland Byrd and Fred Schaus, so he withdrew from WVU, and enrolled at Concord College in Athens, W.Va., where he led the team in scoring. In 1949, while at Concord, Webb, still wishing to play football, tried out for a semi-pro team in Wierton W.Va. called the Wierton Steelers. They were an affiliate with the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise. He played with this team for two years. Webb finished college with a degree in physical education and minors in English and social studies.

Soon after leaving Concord, Webb saw a newspaper advertisement for tryouts for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, to be held in Williamson, W.Va., and decided he would give it a shot."There were a lot of guys at the tryouts, and if you did well the first day, they would invite you back for the second day," he said. After what he thought was a miserable first day, Webb felt his chances were nil for a second-day invite. "But as I was about to leave the field at the end of the day, one of the coaches yelled ‘Hey, Webb, are you going to come back tomorrow?’ I was shocked,” Webb said. “I had made an error and had a bad day at the bat." The second day, he made a better showing and was offered a contract to play in the Cardinals organization.

This would not be Webb's only opportunity to play professional sports. Around the same time, he was invited to play in the Boston Celtics summer league. This would have been on the same level as a developmental league today in the NBA. He was offered a contract and faced a big decision: baseball or basketball? Baseball won out, and he advanced in the Cardinals organization to the Triple A level, although he was never called up to the major leagues.

Becoming a Coach

"I told my Dad once that I always wanted to do two things in life, play professional sports and coach,” Webb said. “I was able to do both." His coaching started at Colonial High School, just east of Roanoke. From there, he went to Christiansburg High School and to William Byrd High School in Vinton. He was at William Byrd when he got the call from President Arthur. "He asked me if I would be interested in talking about a coaching job,” Webb said. “I quickly said yes, and hung up the phone not even knowing where Ferrum was."

Webb met with Dean Elmer Thompson and President Arthur to discuss the coaching opportunity and was invited back for a second interview. Arthur told Webb that the Methodist Conference was considering closing Ferrum, but "we’re not going to close this school, we’re going to make it go." Arthur said. Arthur felt that athletics were key to keeping Ferrum Junior College open, and he knew that the campus and community would rally around the College if its athletics program included football. Webb was offered the post of head football coach and quickly accepted. "I have never felt a sense of such excitement, quickly followed by an uneasy feeling of What have I gotten myself into?" He was also head basketball and baseball coach while at Ferrum.
Rev. Ralph Arthur, Sam Webb, and Dean Elmer Thompson after the announcement of the hiring of Webb and the addition of football at Ferrum Junior College. (photo courtesy Sam Webb)

Hardscrabble Beginnings

It was only four months to kickoff, and Ferrum didn’t have a field, didn’t have uniforms, didn’t have equipment, and didn’t have any players. They didn’t even have a schedule of opponents, and there was no assistant coach. "I went to high schools in the area and borrowed equipment,” Webb said. “I also borrowed equipment from Virginia Tech.” Home games were played on a plain dirt field in Rocky Mount.

Although he had a small apartment below the President’s House, Webb said, “I mostly lived out of my car,” trying to recruit graduating high school seniors as well as students already at Ferrum. Rev. Arthur had an office set up for Webb in the basement of the chapel, near the basketball court (now Schoolfield Hall). That served as Webb’s base of operations for scheduling opponents. "I called any team I could, to put together a schedule” he said.

With 14 players, Ferrum’s football team opened its inaugural season in Vinton against the Naval Receiving Station out of Washington, D.C. Ferrum lost 14-6. The second game was against the VMI freshman team. "VMI suited up and taped about 40 players…we didn’t have a roll of tape, and used ankle wraps instead.” Webb said. "I told the team, you might be out sized and out manned, but you will not be out-hearted." With a quarterback and a center weighing 140 lbs. each, Ferrum took on a VMI team that featured Bobby Ross at quarterback. Ross would go on to a successful coaching career serving as head coach in both the college and pro ranks. “With the Lord looking over us, we won, 18-13," Webb said. “I cant explain how we did it.”

Soon after that game, the coach at VMI, John McKenna, called Webb and offered him an assistant coaching job at VMI. After some internal debate, Webb politely declined the offer. Ferrum would win one more game that season, against the Washington and Lee freshmen team, by a score of 13-6, at Lexington. There were only seven games in 1955, one of them a 37-6 loss on the road to Chowan College. The next year, Ferrum had 10 games scheduled and played Chowan again, this time in Rocky Mount. Chowan won again, but the final score was 6-0.

‘On the track’

Coach Webb left Ferrum at the end of the second season, for financial reasons. "I was going in debt as the position only paid $250 a month," Webb said. "I talked to Rev. Arthur, and he knew I needed more money, but there was none available. I also had serious concerns about my health, and was worried that I may have a terminal condition. Thankfully that was not the case."

Through Arthur’s foresight, Ferrum secured the right man for the job. Few people could have made something out of nothing between May and September that first year. Arthur was also correct in his contention that football would strengthen the campus and be a source of pride for the students and the community.

Webb recalled the last time he saw Rev. Arthur. "He had a serious illness, and I happened to be at the hospital visiting a friend when I saw an orderly helping someone down the hall. He saw me and smiled, saying “Sam!" Webb realized it was Arthur. "We embraced, and he said to me, ‘We got the train on the track and headed in the right direction, Sam.’” Both men stood there in tears.

Even though the won-loss record did not show it, Arthur and Coach Webb had succeeded at laying the foundation of an important part of campus life at Ferrum. The College’s football team went on to win junior college national championships in 1965, 1968, 1974 and 1977.

Coach Webb lives in the Roanoke Valley. He continues to follow sports with great interest and still gets to Ferrum for a football game when he can.

Sam Webb (L) and Ferrum's second football coach Carson Barnes at the 50 years of Ferrum football celebration in 2005.
(Photo Courtesy of the Ferrum College Alumni Office)

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